I live in Buffalo, where we regularly get foot after foot of snow that has to be driven through, trudged through, and shoveled for months of the year. Therefore, the thought of going to the North Pole has never been something that ever appealed to me in the least, unless Santa Claus took me in his reindeer sled. But there are those who not only were interested in being one of the first people who found the North Pole, they were willing to risk months of loneliness and boredom, a monotonous and unappealing diet, and loss of fingers, toes, or even their lives to try to get there. One of these people was the African-American Matthew Henson.
Henson, born in Maryland a year after the end of the Civil War, left home after his parents died and went to seek work in Washington DC. He did any work he could find, including sailing with a merchant ship and clerking in a store; although his white employers were kind, he faced considerable racism in Washington in reconstruction-era America, and found that he was treated more equally on board ships. It was perhaps for this reason that when Robert Peary came into the shop where Henson was clerking, he accepted Peary’s officer to serve as his valet on an expedition to Nicaragua. When Peary announced four years later, in 1891, that he wanted to be the first to reach the North Pole, Henson—who had previously been to Russian ports in winter on the merchant ship—agreed to go with him. In 1909, after several attempts, Henson, Peary, and four Inuit members of the Arctic team, reached the North Pole and planted the American flag. Henson’s sled was some distance ahead of Peary’s, and it was Henson who placed the flag at the pole. I will note that there was controversy at the time over whether Peary’s team was first, and controversy later over whether they actually reached the pole or just came close, but whether they did or not is not really germane to what happened to Henson after they returned to the states.
Peary became an admiral and received various medals. Henson became a messenger “boy”. Henson was not invited to join the prestigious Explorers Club, not even when Peary was president; and when Peary received medals from various geographic societies around the world, Henson was neither invited to ceremonies nor similarly recognized. Like Britain’s Walter Tull, whose achievements were similarly ignored in official circles a few years later, Henson failed to receive similar treatment to white people because of the color of his skin.
Material written for children about arctic exploration and the North Pole also downplays or ignores Henson’s contributions. White author Mike Salisbury, who worked in the arctic and researched for the BBC, published a book on Arctic Expedition (Victoria House 1989). The book’s cover is promising because it includes one brown-skinned and one white-skinned child “explorer” driving dog sleds while walruses look on.
The double-page spread on “Early Explorers” does mention Peary and Henson, but while there are illustrations of several other expeditions headed by white explorers, there is no illustration of either Peary or Henson, and the text does not indicate that Henson was African-American. (In fact, the only person of color on the page at all is “an Inuit” who apparently does not have a name.) Given the way that the book’s illustrations otherwise encourage Black and white children to be explorers, the failure to portray Henson is disappointing. Children need role models, and historical heroes, and Henson is undisputedly both. He learned the Inuit language (Peary did not, at least not to the extent that Henson did) and could drive a dog sled, which Peary also could not do. Peary’s leadership and knowledge was necessary to the success of the trip, but so was Henson’s.
At least Salisbury mentions Henson. The DK “Find Out” website (https://www.dkfindout.com/us/history/explorers/who-was-first-to-north-pole/), designed for children, says that “Robert Peary announced that he had reached the Pole in 1909, but because his men were not trained navigators, none of them could be sure”. The picture accompanying the text shows an arctic sled, but no photographs of any of the explorers. Again, this is an opportunity missed to highlight the bravery of people like Peary and Henson, whether they reached the pole first or not.
Black writers, on the other hand, just like Black organizations and clubs in Henson’s time, have always celebrated Henson’s contribution to arctic exploration. In 1969, the Golden Legacy comics (which I wrote about in a previous blog) did an entire issue dedicated to Henson. And just this summer, Catherine Johnson, already known for her historical fiction (including Nest of Vipers and Sawbones) and ripped-from-the-historical-headlines narratives (The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo) published Race to the Frozen North: The Matthew Henson Story with Barrington Stoke. Both these stories, written 50 years apart, emphasize Henson’s bravery as well as the racial prejudice that allowed his achievements to be doubted by his contemporaries and buried by history for many years.
Both stories repeat an anecdote about a bet between Henson and a white colleague that he would not return from the North Pole with all his fingers and toes intact, and link the anecdote directly to the casual racism of the time. It was common for explorers to lose fingers or toes to frostbite on such journeys, but in both accounts, the white colleague argues that it is impossible for a Black person to survive in cold temperatures. This is the legacy of a racist version of human evolution that suggested people of African descent were acclimatized to hot countries, and therefore were best equipped to work (and be enslaved) on plantations, while white people were more adapted to colder countries, and had therefore learned to use their minds rather than their physical strength. This legacy lives on in children’s biographies even now, where people of African descent are more likely to be found in sports biographies than in scientist biographies, so it is crucial to recognize this prejudice and change the paradigm, particularly in children’s books.
I found Johnson’s biography particularly engaging because it is written in the first person. This allows the reader to get a hint of Henson’s personality: determined, curious, and practical. Johnson’s Henson recognizes and abhors the prejudice he experiences—“I didn’t like it when people called me ‘boy’. I was twenty-one—wasn’t I a man?” (61)—but he does not object out loud (“There was no point”; 61) and is quick to see past casual racism when he feels that a person is otherwise “open and honest” (61). Henson takes jobs even when they don’t seem ideal: “I did not want to be a valet. A valet’s job was to iron and clean clothes. But perhaps if it gave me the chance to travel again it might be worth it” (62). His eagerness for adventure and his willingness to take on lesser roles and accept some prejudice to participate in exploration in uncharted territory makes the end of Henson’s story particularly poignant in Johnson’s account. While the Golden Legacy comic quickly skims over Henson’s omission from the fame that came to Peary, Johnson shows Henson’s pain at being ignored, not just by medal-giving societies, but by Peary himself after their final expedition. “Admiral Peary had never contacted me after our last trip. That made me very sad but I had to live in the present. I always knew life would be different for me. I was coloured. But I knew that I had done great things” (117). In this short passage, Johnson manages to highlight historical racism and suggest to readers that belief in oneself and a curious, open mind are the best antidote to the frozen smiles of a prejudiced society.